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Ulster have no soft centres while the big guns are out

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 16/12/2015

Ulster's Luke Marshall
Ulster's Luke Marshall

Given the wealth of strong performances across the board last week, Ulster coaches were loathe to single out individuals following the 38-0 win over Toulouse but the centre pairing of Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall still drew high praise from Director of Rugby Les Kiss.

With perceived first-choice midfielders Jared Payne and Darren Cave both set to return from injury in January, the makeshift coupling of two 12s in Ulster's three-quarter line reaped huge reward for a back division that played with a zip not seen since the four-try defeat to Munster at the end of October.

Both were try scorers in the contest with their hard-running, and accurate distribution to the wide channels by Marshall, posing real problems for the four-time European Champions.

The young pair - given Marshall's relative experience it is easy to forget that at 24 he is just a year older than McCloskey - will again be central to Ulster's plans for the return clash at the Stade Ernest Wallon on Sunday afternoon as the province aim to build on the momentum that has supporters targeting a return to the Champions Cup knockout stages after last season's absence.

While Saracens remain firmly in the box seat in Pool 1, victory this weekend - with Top 14 strugglers Oyonnax still to play home and away - would give Kiss' men a real chance of securing a quarter-final spot as one of three runners-up.

Insisting that focus must remain only on the task at hand, Kiss was thrilled to see the progress made by a backline finally taking on the field in conditions suited to playing with ball in hand.

"I'm not downplaying it because it was awesome but there's a job to do next game," he said. "There's a lot of players who were sensational. I could go through every player but you have to say Luke at 13 was superb.

"His carrying into contact and some of his defence to limit what they could do around the edge was great.

"Stu is growing each game. He's learning to be a more complete player, with and without the ball.

"Paddy Jackson did some exceptional stuff and the more game time he gets working with the shapes will see him really, really take control of the game."

No.10 Jackson, playing flat and at a real pace, admitted that the performances from the two men directly outside him eased the burden on his creative talents.

"It's nice to have a big guy outside you like Stu and having Luke there as well," he said. "They have been brilliant over the last two weeks, especially Lukey.

"He has been stepping up into No.10 when I haven't been able to make certain phases.

"That's made my job easier and means I can focus on the next phase."

The five-try defeat, as well as being held to nil for the first time in Europe, will have riled their abject visitors and Kiss knows what it will take to win at a ground where only two travelling Irish teams (Leinster in 2006 and Connacht in 2013) have ever managed to taste victory.

While Ulster did record an away draw against Sunday's hosts back in 2000, Andrew Trimble, Rory Best, Roger Wilson and Tommy Bowe can all cite 2007's 28-13 defeat as an example of how different a beast Toulouse can be on their own patch.

Kiss added: "We know they'll come back at us.

"Rory Best has already spoken about what it takes to win over there. It's a difficult place to go and they have a great home record.

"We need to be in a good place to go there and make this win matter."

Ugo Mola, Toulouse's head coach after long-serving Guy Noves took the reins of the national team following the World Cup, has already said his side must use the embarrassment of last week as motivation.

"My frustration? It's important to keep that for next week and try to work more," he said.

"We must certainly remember this experience. They dominated us physically and technically and at the set-piece. I think we have been taught a big lesson."

While blessed with the kind of strength in depth only found in the Top 14, Mola's cause will not be helped by the news that he will be without the two back-rowers, Gillian Galan and the influential Louis Picamoles, who picked up injuries on Friday night.

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